By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO The state of Sullivan County, acknowledged Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis in his 2011 State of the County Address Wednesday night, is not good.
“Our friends and neighbors continue to feel the stress and frustration of the prolonged recession,” he admitted in front of a crowd at the Government Center.
“With unemployment and more importantly underemployment at historic highs, gas prices climbing north of $3.50 per gallon and the price of home heating rising sharply with oil approaching $4 per gallon, our families are being forced to make some very difficult choices yet again this year.”
The county processed 5,822 HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program) applications this year, Rouis said, and saw a 46 percent increase in food stamp cases, a 23 percent increase in families needing temporary assistance, and a 30 percent increase in Medicaid cases since 2008.
County leaders, he explained, have been trying to balance the needs of taxpayers with those of the county employees, as costs continue to escalate as rapidly for benefits as services.
Nevertheless, Rouis added, “I refuse to believe that these issues are insurmountable or that our only options are layoffs or raising taxes.”
He thus proposed a County Workforce and Labor Task Force, featuring union officials, county leaders and members of the public, “to examine these issues and file a written report with recommendations, if applicable, by no later than September 1.”
Rouis also called for the repeal of the state’s mandate that forces the county to pony up 25 percent of Medicaid costs, noting that only New York and North Carolina require such of counties.
“Many of our social service programs fill a vital need for our residents and have extraordinarily good results,” he acknowledged, “but so long as the state is only responsible for 50 percent of the costs, the system will never serve our residents to the best of its ability.”
Rouis also pushed for regionalizing services.
“Why is some invisible line on a map the defining criteria for how services are delivered?” he asked. “Why not work with our neighboring counties to serve our residents more quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively?”
He’s hoping neighboring counties will join in having a study done on the matter by Pattern for Progress, led by Rock Hill resident and former county manager Jonathan Drapkin.
“Without a change in the mandates or a dramatic improvement of the economy, Sullivan County will be simply in business to provide state-mandated programs and will no longer be in a financial position to provide the ‘unmandated’ services of public safety and public works,” he warned.
While Rouis noted that the nurses of the Certified Home Health Agency (CHHA) made nearly 23,000 visits to residents needing short-term care in 2010, he insisted the county must explore funding it with non-county monies.
“Make no mistake: it is not a discussion centered on the need or the performance of the unit, but rather an exploratory endeavor to see if there is an opportunity to have a more efficient delivery of services coupled with a financial relief to the taxpayers of the county,” he said, envisioning an “open and objective RFP [Request For Proposals] process.”
Rouis also wants further study of the county’s mental hygiene unit, which served 7,600 people in 2010. Again citing a lack of available county funding, he called for the creation of a “working group” County Manager David Fanslau, Community Services Director Joe Todora, union officials and legislators to draft an RFP no later than August 1.
Pointing out the success of tourism venues like Bethel Woods, Villa Roma, Monticello Motor Club and Monticello Casino and Raceway, Rouis said he’s asked local economic development agencies to find ways to increase hotel rooms in the county.
Agriculture also got a mention, and thanks to renewed efforts to keep it viable, Rouis said he was inspired to create an Ag Summit sometime this spring. To be coordinated by Catskill Mountainkeeper President Ramsay Adams, the event will feature roundtable talks on how to maximize local agriculture’s potential.
Rouis ended his speech on the faith that the county will emerge from the recession thanks to the residents, businesses and workers who remain willing to lend a hand to those less fortunate.
“And so, while it would be easy to be discouraged and lose faith in these turbulent times filled with finger-pointing and political rhetoric,” he concluded, “in those moments of doubt, I encourage you to look in your own communities, neighborhoods and your own homes, and take hope from the good will that grows there.”.